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stage dive

Theater Review: Julia Stiles Leads the Jittery Collegiate Thrills of Persephone

It’s always opening night at Persephone, a schizoid steampunk stage contraption currently unspooling at BAM’s Next Wave Festival: In a meta-theatrical triple-lutz (with serious assists from Jim Findlay’s four-dimensional scenic design and Laurie Olinder’s projection work), the show simultaneously takes place backstage and onstage, as two divas, Clara and Grace (Julia Stiles and composer-lyricist Mimi Goese), plot to wrest control of their fractious turn-of-the-century theater company from Jules, the cokey, womanizing artistic-director (Sean Haberle).

As this Altman-esque intrigue plays out in the wings, the troupe is performing Persephone, a splashy pageant culled from romantic nineteenth-century poetry and juiced up with giant projections from Thomas Alva Edison’s “Magic Lantern,” a forebear of the film projector. The machine, which whirs menacingly downstage, is tended by Nicholas (Michael Anthony Wiliams), the resident techie — who also happens to be playing Hades. Clara/Stiles stars as Persephone, abducted daughter of Demeter (Grace), and Jules, of course, plays Zeus. Oh, and did I mention it’s a musical? Or, to be more accurate, a play with music? And that its abstract, hexagonal, world-beat songs (by Goese and propeller-head lab-musician Ben Neill) account for at least 45 minutes of its 75-minute running time? Whew! Sounds just exhausting, doesn’t it?

But it’s not, really: just a little cross-eyed and overconceived. The thin libretto from Side Man’s Warren Leight is brisk and bumptiously funny, with plenty of "no people like show people" rib ticklers and very few twists, once the show gets going. The quippy linearity of the storytelling doesn’t really jibe with Goese and Neill’s elliptical score or the intergalactic ambitions of the mise en scene — but then, nothing really harmonizes with anything in the hermetically sealed, total-theater world of Persephone. As a show, it has all the jittery collegiate thrills and what-me-worry kitchen-sinkness of a black-box experiment, mated with a Robert LePage–size budget. But beneath all of its rivets and scrims, this is a basic power struggle of a story (women and technology overthrowing an old white male tyrant) told in the most un-basic way imaginable: If Baz Lurhmann and Laurie Anderson got stoned listening to late-night college-radio electro-pop, Persephone is what they’d hallucinate. And whether or not you’ll dig it depends entirely on your instant gut response to the previous sentence.

Persephone is at BAM’s Harvey Theater through October 30.

Photo: Laurie Olinder